What is ABMS Board Certification? | American Board of Medical Specialties (2023)

ABMS and the ABMS Member Boards focus on improving the health of individuals, their families, and communities by elevating the discipline of specialty medicine through board certification.

ABMS Member Board certification offers an independent evaluation and verification of physicians’ and medical specialists’ (also known as diplomates) skills and expertise. It supports and encourages them in developing their knowledge and skills throughout their careers to meet the standards and requirements for continuing certification.

As medical specialties continue to evolve, so does board certification. In this way, it supports specialists in developing their knowledge and skills while it remains the trusted credential patients rely on to help identify qualified specialists.

What is the Difference Between Medical Licensure and Board Certification?

Medical licensure sets the minimum competency requirements to diagnose and treat patients and is not specialty specific. All physicians and medical specialists in the United States must be licensed to practice medicine by licensing boards in each state. The individual medical licensing authorities, or state medical boards of the various jurisdictions (represented by the Federation of State Medical Boards) grant the licenses to practice medicine. Each medical licensing authority sets its own rules and regulations and requires passing of a series of exams, either USMLE or COMLEX, that demonstrates qualification for licensure. Results of the exams are reported to these authorities for use in granting the initial license to practice medicine.

Board certification is specific to specialties and subspecialties and represents an individual’s advanced knowledge, training, and skills in a particular area of medicine. While a license is required to practice medicine, board certification is a voluntary process. The 24 ABMS Member Boards are independent organizations entrusted to evaluate physicians’ and medical specialists’ knowledge, skills, and judgment and grant board certification to the individuals who complete board specific requirements including medical licensure, residency/fellowship training, program director attestation, and passing a rigorous exam. Board certification involves a continuing process of professional assessment and learning to support improvements in patient care quality, safety, outcomes, and experiences.

  • Not all board certification programs are created equally. Learn about evaluating board certification programs.[PDF]
  • Learn why ABMS Member Board Certification is the trusted leader by the public and the profession.[PDF]

How Does a Physician or Medical Specialist Become Board Certified?

To become certified, physicians and medical specialists complete residency training following medical school, meet all training requirements, and successfully complete the board examination process. Achieving board certification is the threshold of a specialist’s lifelong commitment to demonstrating professionalism and continuous learning, toward the ultimate goal of providing quality patient care.

How Does Board Certification Contribute to Health Care?

Board certified physicians and medical specialists, also known as diplomates, bring the standards of specialty care to their patients and the hospitals and health systems where they work. Board certification assures patients and health care organizations that the specialists they choose are skilled and knowledgeable, maintain their specialty expertise, and meet the standards established by their peers.

In fact, research on initial certification has consistently shown a reduced likelihood of disciplinary actions and a higher quality of care by board certified specialists. ABMS publishes information to verify board certification, helping everyone make more informed decisions when choosing a specialist.

Download these infographics to learn additional facts about board certification and its importance in providing a higher standard of patient care.

What is Continuing Certification?

Continuing certification is the ongoing process of board certification that simultaneously supports physiciansand medical specialists(also known as diplomates) in keeping their knowledge and skills current while validating their increasing expertise in a specialty.

The ABMS Member Board certification programs include continuous assessment and learning activities for professional development.

The characteristics of continuing certification continue to evolve over time to keep pace with medical advancements and how care is delivered. The ABMS Member Boards are working to provide their diplomates more focused, relevant, and accessible activities and assessments for identifying gaps and supporting learning.

Benefits of Continuing Certification Include:

Helps diplomates stay current with medical advancements

Diplomates maintain their board certification status by continuing to meet board requirements and demonstrating — through more frequent, formative assessments — the merging of information they learned with their clinical judgment. Results from the assessments, along with other evaluation tools, can also indicate individuals’ clinical tendencies for performance in practice.

Emphasizes assessment to enhance learning

The foundation of continuing certification is ongoing assessment and learning. Educational research has highlighted the role of assessment to reinforce learning. Challenges to memory improve retention; and specific techniques like spaced repetition (repeating similar challenges over time) and interleaving (mixing different content areas over time) are more conducive to long-term learning and can accelerate the adoption of new clinical information. The ABMS Member Boards use this science to improve the effectiveness of their assessment programs.

Provides direction to identify knowledge gaps and refocus learning

The structured process of continuing certification guides diplomates through a progression of benchmarking their knowledge and skills and identifying knowledge gaps. This inspires more focused learning and makes the time diplomates invest in keeping their knowledge and certification current more efficient.

Fulfills public expectations for professionalism

The public wants the best care for themselves and their families, and ABMS Member Board certified diplomates want to meet those expectations. Board certification enhances trust and transparency in the patient–provider relationship and is an important factor when choosing a specialist. In fact, more than four out of five people surveyed say certification status is an important factor for choosing a specialist — second only to whether the specialist accepts their insurance.

For patients and their families, knowing that their specialists are board certified instills peace of mind and confidence. The Certification Matters website provides a way for patients to recognize that a specialist has received critical training and continues to expand his or her knowledge and skills in their specialty.

Reduces risk of disciplinary actions

Continuing certification supports diplomates’ commitment to the public trust. By participating in continuing certification, diplomates demonstrate their professionalism, knowledge, and skills. They are considered less likely to be subject to disciplinary actions from a state medical board due to errors, accidents and/or legal liability than those who are not participating. Assessment scores show the association: the higher the exam score, the less likely an action will be taken, and if taken, the less serious the action will be. The assessments can help identify unprofessional behaviors and protect the public and profession from harm.

Encourages participation in professional and organizational quality improvement activities

Board certified physiciansand medical specialists bring the highest standards for specialty care into the practices and health systems where they work. Participation in improvement activities for continuing certification encourages them to refresh their knowledge and retool their skills while engaging in professional development activities. These activities drive medical advancements and reduce practice variation, resulting in better management of patients with chronic medical conditions, more effective use of resources, improvements in performance measures, more efficient testing, and overall improved outcomes.

ABMS offers ways for the public and professional organizations to find out if a physicianor medical specialist is board certified and is keeping their knowledge and skills current through continuing certification activities.

What Enhancements Are Being Made to Continuing Certification?

ABMS and its Member Boards design programs that encourage continuing professional development, health care research, and practice improvement necessary for advancing the quality and delivery of patient care. They continuously collaborate with residents, diplomates, hospitals, and professional and specialty societies to explore ways to further support physician or medical specialist professional development and promote learning.

Using all this input, and with consideration of ways to foster, cultivate, and preserve a culture of diversity, equity,and inclusion, the boards are enhancing continuing certification by:

  • Enabling better and more frequent assessments that offer convenience while maintaining a rigorous evaluation of knowledge;
  • Using the formative aspects of assessment to inform the summative decision on a diplomate’s certification status;
  • Bringing assessment and other program activities to where diplomates practice;
  • Offering remediation pathways to retain or regain a certificate;
  • Enhancing consistency, transparency, and accountability; and
  • Reviewing certification standards.

ABMS is aiming higher by continually evolving board certification through innovative programs and services that help board certified diplomates demonstrate their competence and professionalism, support organizations in achieving their quality improvement and safety goals, and offer assurance to the public that they are being cared for by specialists committed to their health and well-being.

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